Friday, November 29, 2013

Biology, Politics, and the Study of (Comparative) Political Behavior

UPDATE: Just discovered this interesting and (I think) similar post by Hans Noel taking more of a historical rather than comparative view of the question.

A recent exchange between political scientists Larry Bartels and John Hibbing in the Monkey Cage has focused on the value of the "biology and politics" approach.

Bartels argues that seeking to explain political attitudes and behavior using biological explanations "does not look worth the effort". His reasoning, in short, is that the real action of politics is in elite conflict that shapes and frames political debates and, thus, public opinion. In other words, without understanding elite debates about the death penalty, one cannot understand why American public opinion towards the death penalty has changed in the past two decades.

Hibbing disagrees, arguing that the disputes that underpin ideological (and thus partisan) conflict are fundamental and thus timeless. As a powerful example, Hibbing comments:

"50 years ago the issue was interracial marriage; today it is gay marriage; and 50 years from now it will be something else; but the differences between those who embrace and those who eschew new lifestyles are a constant."
 The same point might fairly be made about the death penalty: attitudes about the necessary level of punitiveness towards criminals have always been organized in a predictable fashion, even as norms about what constitutes sufficient punishment have changed (presumably, many contemporary proponents of the death penalty by lethal injection would recoil at the idea of a public hanging).

How to make sense of this debate? It's clear that deep-rooted biological and psychological factors shape our political attitudes. But so does the political environment in which we grow up and live. Imagine two boys with identical genetic/psychological dispositions trending towards authoritarianism--but one raised in small-town Nebraska and the other in a big-city union household. Both are, for various reasons, likely to remain in the hometowns and in the general social/religious communities in which they were raised. But the former is likely to become a staunch Republican while the latter is likely to become a Democrat. The environment clearly matters, though our predisposition do as well.

A comparativist's perspective helps in understanding this debate. One of the problems in some biology and politics research (or political psychology, generally) is that ideological descriptions like "conservatism" are used in a relatively fixed and (dare I say it?) American sense. And that's where I think much of this research misses the "politics" in this field.

My current research examines how authoritarianism shapes attitudes towards the European Union (answer: it does). One question I am exploring is how this relationship has changed. What I argue is that there was no relationship between authoritarianism and EU attitudes 25 years ago, because virtually no political elites described European integration as a threat to national sovereignty or community. Now, many elites do frame the EU in such terms, inspiring a "backlash" against the EU from authoritarians.

In short, politics matters is clear and predictable ways. So do genetic and psychological factors. Political attitudes reflect the intersection between the two.

So how should we treat the role of biological factors? My take is that humans have deep-rooted impulses that vary in predictable ways. Some of us are more risk-averse; some of us seek out new experiences. Some of us tend to see the world in "black and white" terms; others will see many shades of grey. And so on. This leads to predictable and stable preferences: towards authority, towards new lifestyles and social norms, towards competition and risk, etc.

"Politics" matters in shaping how certain issues will be considered--or whether they will be considered at all. To return to my research, European integration was not threatening to authoritarians in the 1980s--when more of the public debate emphasized its role in promoting peace and prosperity in Europe. Now it does, as political elites have started to criticize its effects on the nation. Consider another example, such as health care reform. In the United States, efforts to expand the government's role in managing health care can easily be framed as risky given that a new government system could end up being worse than the old system. In (say) the United Kingdom, efforts to introduce market-based health care reforms (thus reducing government's role) might similarly be framed as risky--but for the "opposite" reason. In short, we observe the effect of the same dispositional impulses (risk-aversion). But, in different contexts, we observe different reactions. And, as Hetherington and Weiler demonstrate in the US, the shape of elite conflict can also change over time, leading to different patterns of public opinion.

In short, what makes this approach interesting and relevant (I think) is the ability to study political behavior at the precise intersection of dispositional influences (including biology) and environmental factors (like elite conflict). This is easier to see when we move our focus beyond the United States.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Cultural Maps and other "Just-So Stories"

Every now and then, a cultural-historical map of the United States (or Europe, or wherever) will make the rounds, purporting to contain some grand narrative that can explain many truths about politics today. The latest one comes courtesy of an article entitled "Up in Arms". The article claims that the United States is in fact eleven separate nations, determined by early patterns of settlement. The author furthermore claims that even subsequent waves of immigration haven't change this, because immigrants assimilated into the dominant culture of their area, and social mobility reinforces--rather than weakens--this pattern because people choose to "sort" into like-minded communities.

The author then provides a couple (telling) caveats. First, he engages in some serious handwaving about African-Americans, claiming that their experience has been different but yet the same. Second, and more tellingly, he notes that he is attempting to describe the "dominant culture" of each area, so of course there will be many exceptions.

Reasons to Be Skeptical

So what is the problem with these sorts of "analyses"? I'll discuss three.

The first, and biggest (in my opinion), problem is the lack of causality in this author's story. Here's how it goes: early US settlers brought with them their own values and attempted to recreate their homelands. These values shaped attitudes (and practices) towards politics, society, violence, and a whole host of other questions. The problem, I think, is getting from there to here. When you really think about it, his argument is (with apologies to "South Park"):

1. Early settlement
2. Creation of an early political culture
3. ?????
4. Present-day political culture

Seriously, what is the causal link between what happened 200-300 years ago, and today? I can suggest some plausible answers, but they have nothing to do with culture. Instead, they would be rooted in concepts like path dependence. Note, however, that a concept like path dependence emphasizes the crucial explanatory role of economic and political institutions--not some vague notion of culture. More to the point: any explanation of how regional patterns of attitudes or politics develop should be rooted in human agency. People write laws and create arrangements by which they are governed; they aren't just mindlessly imported from the Scottish highlands. If the Deep South is the way that it is, it's because enterprising political and social leaders have sought to make it and keep it that way--probably because it helped them to maintain their own political and economic position.

A second, and perhaps more obvious, reason to be skeptical is the arbitrariness of this. Look at the map of "Yankeedom." It stretches from New England, through the Great Lakes (though broken in Ohio for some reason), including all of Michigan, the city of Chicago, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Same applies to "Greater Appalachia" (which includes most of Texas, apparently!), and the "Midlands", which looks like a parody of a gerrymandered legislative district.

How are we supposed to believe a story of about settlement patterns that links together such a diverse area into one "nation"? It's hard to see any reasonable interpretation of this claim if one knows about how these areas were settled and by whom. My suspicion is that the author worked backwards: he identified patterns in the outcome (current-day political attitudes) and attempted to "fit" his story to the facts.

Sometimes, even the "facts" seem a bit ridiculous. The people of New France (including Louisiana and Quebec) are allegedly "among the most liberal on the continent, with unusually tolerant attitudes towards gays and people of all races." Sure, New Orleans and Montreal are pretty liberal places, but I'd suggest the author spend a couple weeks in rural Louisiana or Quebec, at which point he might care to re-evaluate his claims. Which brings me to the third problem:

Finally, even given the author's caveat, this article seriously overstates the degree to which these eleven "nations" are cohesive. I would argue that the inhabitants of the major cities of the US are more alike each other than they are with their fellow "co-nationals". Why? Because city-dwellers have certain common interests (transit, crime, etc), and cities do attract certain types of people. But understand the point: the residents of Atlanta are more similar to the residents of Seattle than they are to the residents of small-town Mississippi.

On a broader note, this is a general problem with cultural arguments. The level of shared values that is necessary for a culture to exist and influence people's behavior is rarely clear. This makes it easy to craft arguments and categorizations that are essentially arbitrary and always non-falsifiable.

Clashes of Civilizations, Ancient Hatreds, and other bad ideas

Lest it seem that I am just picking on one random article/map, understand that many similar cultural arguments like this are made in international politics, and most of them are equally flawed. Samuel Huntington's famous "Clash of Civilizations" argument contains many of the same flaws. The "ancient hatreds" theory of ethnic conflict draws on many similar misconceptions.

This is not just a subject of academic interest. Ideas based on culture influence actual policy. In part, that is because they are easy and they lend themselves to moral equivalence. Embracing the idea that the new world is careening towards a "clash of civilizations" could have profound effects on our foreign policy. The Clinton Administration used the idea that the ethnic conflict between Serbs, Bosniaks, and Albanians was rooted in "ancient hatreds" to justify non-action during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. In the present case, the idea that the Deep South is a different "nation" to other parts of the US could be used to justify all sorts of ideas, including inaction. (After all, if attitudes towards guns and violence have their origins in centuries-old cultural values, what is the point of even trying to change things?).

In short, maps like that showing the 11 nations of the US are fun and easy. But they fail to provide a compelling explanation of why patterns of party support or political attitudes emerge, distracting us from useful efforts to understand the actual sources of public opinion, ethnic conflict, and so on. These sorts of claims are good examples of what we call "just-so stories". Much like the story of how the leopard got its spots, this article about the 11 "nations" of the US makes for fun reading but little more.
among the most liberal on the continent, with unusually tolerant attitudes toward gays and people of all races - See more at:

experience has been different from that of other settlers and immigrants, but it too has varied by nation, as black people confronted the dominant cultural and institutional norms of each. - See more at:
experience has been different from that of other settlers and immigrants, but it too has varied by nation, as black people confronted the dominant cultural and institutional norms of each. - See more at:
experience has been different from that of other settlers and immigrants, but it too has varied by nation, as black people confronted the dominant cultural and institutional norms of each. - See more at:
experience has been different from that of other settlers and immigrants, but it too has varied by nation, as black people confronted the dominant cultural and institutional norms of each. - See more at: